Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Capitalism: A Love Story

I watched this for the first time the other day after a very sound recommendation from Aaron and thought it was interesting enough to warrant a post. The only other Michael Moore film I've watched is Sicko (Talking about the failures of American Healthcare) and that was really good as well, but that's for another day.

As is pretty obvious from the title it's a film about the American love affair with capitalism, but obviously its not just Americans who have long preached its overstated benefits whilst hiding the flaws. What we have in the UK is more of a tamed capitalism, but it remains nonetheless. So what exactly is wrong with it, surely it's the good guy to the evil of communism? Well not really.

The general idea of capitalism is that if you let market forces do their thing then over time the best and most efficient businesses and the most beneficial ideas to society will prosper, whilst bad ideas will die out. It runs on the premise that privately owned businesses which aim to make nothing but profit will bend to the public demand because that is how to make money. What capitalism promises is freedom above all else; the freedom to choose a job, the freedom to choose which products you want to buy and the freedom, through hard work, to move up the ladder and live the high life. It's so ingrained in society that people barely notice it, and certainly don't see how things might be different.

But there are plenty of reasons why this is pretty disingenuous. For a start, what use is the freedom to choose if you don't have the means to exercise that choice? By that I mean what use is saying, you can choose where to work, if there aren't any jobs? And is there really choice as to what products we buy with the massive amounts of advertising and monopolising that big companies can carry out. Capitalism without safeguards will inevitably tend towards big monopoly companies that swallow up competition because that's the most efficient way to do business. Once they're big enough, companies don't have to put as much time into customer service or product quality, they own the competition.

And there are plenty of areas where free market systems are very harmful indeed. Generally, if you need a service that is going to be universal and high quality for all then the free market is not where you want to be looking for inspiration. It doesn't suit business to have to provide the same quality to all persons because it just doesn't make money. Much better from a profit point of view to provide the better service to those who can pay more and just give a rag-tag service to those who can't. That's exactly what happens in American healthcare, except the poorest don't get any service whatsoever. That's exactly why our health and education systems are rightly (for now in any case) well out of the clutches of business, we just can't trust them with something so fundamental to our country.

The system survives because it promises prosperity for all and that the money the big companies make is reinvested into providing opportunities for all to make their mark on the world. In reality, capitalism only serves to help those with money make more of it, and every millionth person at the bottom might break through once in a generation which keeps the hopes high for the rest.

What's the alternative, is it just this or communism? Nope. Personally I'm in favour of a more democratic socialism (as might be gathered from my membership of Labour), but that can be tricky to define. Basically, I'm in favour of a more worker focussed economy, with a massive expansion in the number of co-operatives (worker ran businesses) and essential public services being run by the state so that they can be directed to where people need them the most. If we are to have genuine competition then the state has to regulate the private sector to make sure monopolies can't destroy small business.

There is still a place for privately owned businesses, but overall the economy should be rebalanced so that the wealth is less concentrated toward the top. In fact, where co-ops exist, they are often more efficient because the workers are happier and that helps productivity and vision for the future. You also don't get directors giving themselves extortionate pay rises or bonuses, precisely because everyone has the same say and the workers just wouldn't have it.

People shouldn't be content with the 'trickle down' effect, they should demand fair opportunity. We need to control business, and not let them control us. I'd hate to see this country go the way of America where the private sector all but runs the government and just has politicians as not so pretty hand puppets.

I realise democratic socialism might mean different things to different people, but that's what it is to me, that's my vision.

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